The Tribe — winner of numerous international awards and a cause célèbre on the film-festival circuit since its momentous premiere at Cannes last year — might be the most confrontational film I’ve seen so far in 2015. Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s thriller set among a gang of deaf kids features no spoken dialogue: The whole film plays out in untranslated sign language. As a result, we — or at least those of us who don’t know sign language — have to rely on images and action to grasp what’s going on. As a result, we can’t help but feel at times that we are intruders in this world. But that’s not what makes The Tribe so confrontational. It’s that the film shows us these otherwise vulnerable kids, then plunges us headlong into the depravity of this moral universe. It toys with our pity, then it toys with our outrage, then it toys with our identification. Before we know it, we’ve been sucked into its wicked, all-too-human drama.
The Tribe begins with the arrival of new kid Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) at a cold, gray boarding school for the hearing-impaired, where he’s soon initiated into a small, tough, highly organized gang indulging in petty thievery and prostitution. They dole out beatings, rob train passengers, and pimp out the services of two female students, Anna (Yana Novikova) and Svetka (Rosa Babiy), to a small army of truck drivers at night. Sergey is put in charge of the two girls after their regular pimp finds himself under the wheels of a truck. (In one of the film’s many agonizingly intense scenes, the earlier kid stands smoking a cigarette while the truck slowly backs up towards him, its warning beeps inaudible.) Something of an innocent, Sergey himself pays for sex from Anna, whereupon he starts to develop feelings for her; there’s even a brief moment of tenderness between them, but you might wonder if it’s a dream sequence. The boy’s feelings make it hard for him to let other men have the girl. They also make it hard for him to accept her impending move to Italy, presumably to continue working in the sex trade.
The world of The Tribe is an incredibly bleak one, and it gets bleaker with each scene — until it leads to a final series of actions almost unspeakable in their brutality. That’s not a spoiler, since the whole film has the aura of impending doom hovering over it. Slaboshpytskiy films in mobile, long takes, smooth and portentous, which at times recall Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. His camera stalks the characters down hallways and in parking lots, train cars, and alleyways. Scenes often play out in full shots that capture the breadth of the action, avoiding the easy identification and pathos of close-ups, inserts, and point-of-view shots. That is in part functional — after all, these are people who use their hands to communicate — but it also adds to the film’s remove, to the way it almost dares us to enter into its desperate characters’ inner lives. There’s also an eloquent, nervous energy to the characters’ hand gestures. Even if we don’t understand what they’re signing, we can at times infer what they’re saying; their movements have tone, almost like a dance. (That said, I would love to hear what someone who is fluent in sign language has to say about this film.)
Part of me wants to call The Tribe a silent movie. But it’s not really that. On the soundtrack, we hear the roar of cars, the hum of idling truck engines, and the anxious echo of footsteps down institutional corridors, not to mention the furious whipping of the characters’ hands. I suspect one reason why Slaboshpytskiy didn’t opt to go completely silent was to avoid keeping things from bordering on slapstick or abstraction. In this film, every gesture, breath, or blow has weight. The Tribe is a harrowing, corrosive film, but there’s great, urgent beauty in it.